CES 2021: What to Expect From the First-Ever Virtual CES
Last year’s CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, marked the last time for a long time many of us would be chatting face-to-face, exchanging invisible respiratory droplets, handling the same germy gadgets, and enjoying food and drinks in windowless restaurants.
This year, due to the ongoing pandemic, the annual CES takes place entirely on our computer screens. The first-ever completely remote staging of the consumer tech industry’s tentpole event starts on Monday, January 11.
Experiencing CES from afar poses some obvious challenges for those of us reporting on the show. We can’t stroll the nearly 3 million square feet of expo hall space or actually try the new products being showcased. But we’re going to do our best to give you our expert analyses of the tech fest this year, based on a whole bunch of virtual briefings and our collective dozens of years covering CES in the past. So fire up Zoom, strap on your VR headsets, and get ready to follow along.
Let’s Get Small
On the upside, if you’d like to check out CES this year, there’s no need to spend money on registration fees, airfare, or lodging. You can watch all of the announcements and activities in your pajamas.
But there’s no doubt this year’s CES is scaled down. The Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES, says that around 1,800 exhibitors will be a part of this year’s show. That’s fewer than half of the 4,400 exhibitors who showcased technology last year. The CTA also pointed out that, by being an all-digital event, “the show will be accessible to audiences around the globe” but declined to say how many people have actually registered for this year’s virtual CES. Last year, an estimated 170,000 people attended in person.
Some tech companies are opting out of CES this year or are trickling out product news on their own timetables. Amazon won’t have an official presence, though you can probably expect to see its Alexa voice assistant show up in hundreds of products. Google, which at recent CESes has put up massive Googley installations around Las Vegas, says it will host partner meetings but otherwise is bowing out of the show. Microsoft president Brad Smith will give a keynote address on tech being both a weapon and a tool—an especially relevant topic—but most Microsoft-related news at CES will be from its PC-manufacturer partners. Facebook and its Oculus division also won’t be participating. Instead, the company chose to tease its upcoming “smart glasses” in a blog post earlier this week. And most of the focus on Facebook right now, anyway, is its role in disrupting American democracy.
Samsung and LG Electronics will be hosting virtual press conferences and will give briefings on their new displays and home appliances. But it’s worth noting that Samsung is holding its annual Galaxy phone unveiling on January 14—during CES but not really a part of CES. We’ll also be keeping a close eye on Monday’s press conferences with Intel and Sony. And some of the keynote highlights include talks from the chief executives of General Motors, Verizon, and AMD.
Look but Don’t Touch
So what new technology will we see virtually next week? There are some exciting things happening in TV land, WIRED’s Parker Hall says. The most stunning TV we’ve seen ahead of the conference is a new 110-inch MicroLED model from Samsung. (MicroLED is a relatively new display technology that uses tiny, nonorganic LEDs, three per pixel, and it’s supposed to offer perfect contrast.) More TV makers are pushing 8K screens too, including Samsung, LG, and Sony, as well as manufacturers of lower-cost sets like TCL. And this may seem like a small thing, but many new TVs will ship this year with upgraded HDMI 2.1 ports—so that the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X game consoles can run at their full 120-Hz potential on the displays.
Some TV manufacturers may hold off on making their announcements until spring, when most new TVs start to come to market. It’s just hard to drum up the same kind of hype for displays when you can’t show off an awe-inspiring OLED waterfall in person. And 8K displays come with the same caveat that 4K did just a few years ago: It will take a while for 8K content to become widely available.